The story of ourselves

Paul Raven @ 17-11-2010

The New Scientist CultureLab blog is running an interesting set of pieces about storytelling in the (post-)modern world (for which there is, regrettably, no single unifying tag or category to which I can link you); it’s probably due to a global swelling of interest in such matters coinciding with my own self-education curve, but in the last few years it’s felt like everything has started to boil down to narratives – the stories we graft on to our experiences so that we can make sense of the world.

Of course, by the terms of the theory, that is a narrative in and of itself… but before we get caught in an infinite loop of meta, let’s skip to this article that wonders how the changing structure of the narratives we produce in our art and culture will affect the ones we produce in our heads.

Gazzaniga […] thinks that this left-hemisphere “interpreter” creates the unified feeling of an autobiographical, personal, unique self. “The interpreter sustains a running narrative of our actions, emotions, thoughts, and dreams. The interpreter is the glue that keeps our story unified, and creates our sense of being a coherent, rational agent. To our bag of individual instincts it brings theories about our lives. These narratives of our past behaviour seep into our awareness and give us an autobiography,” he writes. The language areas of the left hemisphere are well placed to carry out these tasks. They draw on information in memory (amygdalo-hippocampal circuits, dorsolateral prefrontal cortices) and planning regions (orbitofrontal cortices). As neurologist Jeffrey Saver has shown, damage to these regions disrupts narration in a variety of ways, ranging from unbounded narration, in which a person generates narratives unconstrained by reality, to denarration, the inability to generate any narratives, external or internal.

[…]

If we create our selves through narratives, whether external or internal, they are traditional ones, with protagonists and antagonists and a prescribed relationship between narrators, characters and listeners. They have linear plots with a fixed past, a present built coherently on it, and a horizon of possibilities projected coherently into the future. Digital technologies, on the other hand, are producing narratives that stray from this classic structure. New communicative interfaces allow for novel narrative interactions and constructions. Multi-user domains (MUDs), massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), hypertext and cybertext all loosen traditional narrative structure. Digital narratives, in their extremes, are co-creations of the authors, users and media. Multiple entry points into continuously developing narratives are available, often for multiple co-constructors.

These recent developments seem to make possible limitless narratives lacking the defining features of the traditional structures. What kinds of selves will digital narratives generate? Multi-linear? Non-fixed? Collaborative? Would such products still be the selves we’ve come to know and love?

As heady as these implications seem, we should not get carried away. From a literary perspective, digital narrative’s break with tradition will either be so radical that the products no longer count as narrative – and so no longer will be capable of generating narrative selves – or they will still incorporate basic narrative structure, perhaps attenuated, and continue to produce recognisable narrative selves.

Or, to put it another way, “we just don’t know, so we’ll have to wait and see”. But it’s fascinating stuff, if only for the tantalising offer of a place where literary theory, anthropology and hard neuroscience might one day all meet up… and that would be an awesome place to spend one’s life theorising, don’t you think? 🙂

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